Wednesday, 28 July 2010

More light, please

Panning is so much easier with cars...

It's been a fascinating few days. The young Barn Owlets are well - all five of them. To be perfectly honest I really wasn't expecting to see them all still alive, their tendency to flounder in the grass can't have escaped the attention of the foxes, who are but a stone's throw away. The two eldest of the brood are now roosting elsewhere, returning to the nest each evening shortly after dad to get their dinner. Number one is looking in fine shape and is regularly perching on posts and making lunges into the grass, although I have still yet to see her make a kill. If she has anything like her dad's hunting prowess she has a very good chance of surviving her first winter - statistically, four out of the five won't. But I have a good feeling about these Owls, there is enough food to support at least two of them in the locality and relatively few hazards. A mild winter would be a bonus.

From the photographer's perspective, decent shots have been hard to come by. The combination of dark clouds and late-showing Owls have been beyond my D300's ability to get anything like the shots of the previous week. I've taken to panning at down to 1/30 - if nothing else it's good practice for Snetterton in a couple of weeks time!

Saturday, 24 July 2010

What... No Owls?

Well, tonight was a a bit of a write-off. With no sign of the Owls at 9pm I was starting to think they may have been fed in the afternoon and consequently were having a bit of a lay-in. Finally, there was the familiar screeching from the tree (Barn Owls do not "twit-twoo", that's the Tawny Owl - and strictly speaking you're more likely to hear the "twoo" bit on it's own) and two of the owlets emerged. This in itself was a little odd - on past form when one is awake they're all up and calling to be fed. But there was a surprise in store..

The adult male appeared some 20 minutes later, followed soon by the oldest female owlet. It seems she is now roosting with dad away from the nest. In normal circumstances she'd soon be off, but with the adult female still unaccounted for she may well stay. She's not been seen for six weeks now. The optimist in me hopes she is sitting on the next brood; though I fear she may no longer be around. Sadly, Barn Owls have a high mortality rate and rarely live beyond 3 years in the wild.

The tardy appearance of the Owls meant no (usable) pictures of them tonight - instead I've posted up my first Bullfinch shot that I took yesterday morning. And what a handsome bird it is.

Friday, 23 July 2010

Barn Owl - photography tips

Picture - Juvenile Barn Owl (female). Exposure settings: 1/100, f5, ISO 800.

I've never been one for early mornings, so I've surprised myself with the ability to rouse myself regularly at 4.30am in recent weeks. This morning, however, it was in vain. Silence from the tree (where the young roost) and no sign of the adults. Had I returned for the umpteenth consecutive evening my family may start to have trouble recognising me, so I'll be back tomorrow.

I'll take the opportunity to explain the challenges facing a photographer when shooting Barn Owls in the evening. Ideal conditions generally occur at the beginning and end of the day when you are relying on natural light (i.e. the sun). Currently - nearing the end of July - we're talking from 6am to 9am and from around 4pm to 7pm on a clear day. You don't want the sun too high or you lose any shadows and the resulting image looks rather flat, but you need enough natural light to keep the shutter speed fast enough to freeze the subject. With birds in flight this is vital - ideally you need to be at around 1/800 or faster for a Barn Owl (higher for smaller, faster birds). I'm basing the following tips on my usual kit for the job - a D300 with a non-VR 300 f2.8 lens and a 1.7x teleconverter. This gives a focal length equivalent to 750mm on a 35mm camera at f5. Not ideal, but then I can't find a buyer for my kidney at the moment to fund a 600mm f4 lens and D3s!

So how do you achieve this when they're showing up at 8pm or later? Compromise. You'll have to surrender a bit of quality in the overall image to get something other than a whole lot of dark and grubby colours. You'll want to be in Manual mode to start with for maximum control of your exposure. The easy option is to take down the shutter speed, but get too low and you'll see motion blur or camera shake evident. The former can give a picture a bit of life when used appropriately, the latter is your worst enemy and will render your shot useless. This is where VR (IS on inferior equipment!) is handy, or a monopod to help support your camera and/or lens. Steady hands are a bonus. Realistically, 1/500 is as slow as you should go until the other options are exhausted - unless of course your bird is stationary. You can also open up the aperture, but remember that IQ is better on most lenses when stopped down a couple of times. Then there is ISO - the sensitivity of your camera's sensor to light. Most current DSLRs will comfortably handle ISO 800 without too much noise (grain, in old money) - even 1600 can produce acceptable results. When post-processed with Noise Reduction software (Photoshop CS5 is brilliant at this) it's a handy option. If you have a D700 or D3/D3s you'll know that these beasts can go further and still get usable images - if not then your kit is wasted on you. Give it to me and buy a D90 or D3000 instead!

It's worth bearing in mind that the background light is likely to change rapidly and play havoc with metering, so to a certain degree you should ignore it - only address this if it goes way out. Watch out if you are switching between very bright and dark backgrounds (sky vs trees, for example). The exposure settings that are acceptable for one could be completely inappropriate for the other and you'll need to adjust quickly.

So in summary... Keep the shutter speed above 1/500 unless you're still needing light at your lens's widest aperture and above ISO 800. After that, it's time to give up and go home - or just stay and admire the beauty of these majestic creatures without worrying about where to point your camera.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Barn Owls: Dad and his girl

BarnOwl72, originally uploaded by Christopher Mills.
Let's get this show on the road...

For the past three months I've been spending a lot of time at a local farm observing a pair of Barn Owls. They have successfully raised 5 owlets who are now developing their flying and pouncing skills and will no doubt be hunting for their own prey in the near future.

For now, Dad is providing sustenance. Usual pattern is he returns to the nest area and plants himself on a post - then the juveniles take a leap at him in an attempt to get a meal! This sometimes results in rather amusing and ungraceful bumps (quite a contrast to the normal regal way that these birds hold themselves) and occasionally fantastic images.

Here's one of my favourite shots so far - The eldest owlet (a female) comes in to take a vole - I've captured the moment as she plucks it from her father's beak. Of course it could be a peck on the cheek to say thank you for being such a wonderful dad, as all daughters should do every now and then!


It's all very well looking at these pictures and thinking 'ooh, isn't that a nice shot'... But what's the point unless you share them? So, that is why this blog has come to exist - I want to share my passion for photography with other people, and hopefully provide some decent shots for them to admire. I'm also an opinionated sod, so it's entirely possible I may not be able to help commenting on football, finance, current affairs... in fact pretty much anything!

I hope that whomever finds their way here enjoys themselves and may be inclined to return...